Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp
Release Date: December 25th, 2014
On Christmas in 2012, about it the depressing musical Les Miserables arrived in theaters offering people a harsh look at 19th Century France. The film was dark, stuff dreary and dour but eventually showed a lighter flair and ended on a more positive note.
Two years later, Into the Woods—another dark and atmospheric musical— arrives in theaters on Christmas but instead of a cast composed of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, this one is stuffed with a cast featuring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine (both remarkable casts, to say the least).
While Les Miserables was overly emotional (“I Dreamed a Dream,” anyone?), Into the Woods offers a more pleasant and welcoming façade. This is a movie that opens on a optimistic note but eventually becomes more pessimistic. For its first hour, the feature offers a unique but interesting spin on a variety of upbeat Grimm fairy tales, that feature unmistakably dark undertones. In its second hour, the story undermines some of those fairy tales though noting that “happily ever after” might not be as pleasant as it seems.
As one of the opening numbers notes, the woods can be full of wondrous things but they can also be filled with unpleasant surprises. It seems that everyone in the story is looking for something or someone in the woods. A character named “The Baker” (James Corden), alongside his impatient wife (Emily Blunt), is looking for four specific items. The couple wants to have a child but a local witch (Meryl Streep) informs them that their family is cursed and unless they can deliver those items in three days, they will never be able to have a child. Once the witch receives those items (all important elements featured in well-known fairy tales), she’ll end the curse.
Director Rob Marshall, best known for directing Chicago (2002), shows off his production skills in many of the feature’s most engaging scenes. He especially excels at crafting scenes featuring different characters— often in disparate locations— singing together. Early on, a scene depicting the cast singing the film’s title song is well-produced as the camera veers from location to location showing the characters singing in unison. The dynamic between some of the paired characters also works quite well— a flirtatious song between the baker and his wife is another particular highlight— but as a whole, many of the individual stories don’t stand up well to scrutiny.
Anna Kendrick, so charming in other films, isn’t given enough here to build the personality of Cinderella while Chris Pine, so great as Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit earlier this year, seems sadly miscast as her Prince Charming. The most underwhelming storyline of all though concerns Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), the witch’s put-upon daughter whose romance with one of Prince Charming’s friends is sadly undernourished. In one of the film’s best choices though, the charming Daniel Huttlestone delivers a standout performance as the mischievous Jack, whose adventures with a beanstalk produce surprising results.
Marshall deserves great credit for the film’s production and its beautifully distressing sets, which hint at the danger and mysteries of the woods. In building the woods, Marshall even creates a theater-like environment for the characters using fog near the actors’ feet (as so many productions are apt to do).
Overall though, the script and the characters aren’t as strong as they could’ve been, leading to a delightfully-staged production that feels more superficial than it should.
Review by: John Hanlon